WASHINGTON — Three former members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division say members of their battalion in Iraq routinely beat and abused prisoners in 2003 and 2004 to help gather intelligence on the insurgency and to amuse themselves.
The new abuse allegations, the first involving members of the elite unit, are contained in a report by Human Rights Watch. They have also been reported by one of the soldiers, a decorated Army captain, to top aides of two senior Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the panel chairman, and John McCain of Arizona.
The captain approached the aides after he tried to report the allegations to his superiors for 17 months. Senate aides said Friday that they found the captain's accusations credible enough to warrant investigation.
An Army spokesman, Paul Boyce, said Friday that the captain's allegations first came to the Army's attention earlier this month, and that the Army had opened a criminal investigation into the matter, which focuses on the division's 1st Brigade, 504th Parachute Infantry. The investigation has just started; the Army knows the identity of the captain and has begun speaking with him, and is seeking the names of two other soldiers.
In separate statements to the human rights organization, the Army captain and the two noncommissioned officers described systematic abuses of Iraqi prisoners, including beatings, exposure to extremes of hot and cold, stacking in human pyramids and sleep deprivation at Camp Mercury, a forward operating base near Fallujah. Fallujah was the site of the major uprising against the American-led occupation in April 2004. The report describes the soldiers' positions in the unit, but not their names.
The abuses reportedly took place between September 2003 and April 2004, before and during the investigations into similar misconduct at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Senior Pentagon officials initially sought to characterize the scandal at Abu Ghraib as the work of a rogue group of military police soldiers on the prison's night shift, but since then the Army has opened more than 400 inquiries into detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, and punished 230 enlisted soldiers and officers.
The trial of a private charged in an investigation into Abu Ghraib, Lynndie R. England, continued Friday in Fort Hood, Texas.
In the newest case, the human rights organization interviewed three soldiers: one sergeant who said he was a guard and acknowledged beating some prisoners at the direction of military intelligence personnel; another sergeant who was an infantry squad leader who said he had witnessed some detainees being beaten; and the captain who said he had seen several interrogations and received regular reports from noncommissioned officers on the ill treatment of detainees.
In one incident, the Human Rights Watch report states, an off-duty cook allegedly broke a detainee's leg with a metal baseball bat. Detainees were also stacked, fully clothed, in human pyramids and forced to hold five-gallon water jugs with their arms outstretched or do jumping jacks until they passed out, the report says.
"We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs, and stomach, and pull them down, kick dirt on them," one sergeant told Human Rights Watch researchers during one of four interviews in July and August. "This happened every day."
The sergeant continued: "Some days we would just get bored, so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did it for amusement."
At least one soldier said he had been acting under orders from military intelligence personnel to soften up detainees, whom the unit called persons under control, or PUCs, to make them more cooperative during formal interviews. "They wanted intel," said one sergeant, an infantry fire-team leader who served as a guard when no military police soldiers were available. "As long as no PUCs came up dead, it happened." He added, "We kept it to broken arms and legs."
The soldiers told Human Rights Watch that while they were serving in Afghanistan, they learned the stress techniques from watching Central Intelligence Agency operatives interrogating their prisoners.
The Army captain who made the allegations gave Human Rights Watch and Senate aides his long account only after his efforts to report the abuses to his superiors were rebuffed or ignored over 17 months, according to Senate aides and John Sifton, one of the Human Rights Watch researchers who conducted the interviews.
The captain told the researchers that one of his superiors told him, "Don't expect me to go to bat for you on this issue if you take it up." The captain, who is currently in Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C., asked not to be identified in the report to avoid jeopardizing his career.
The two noncommissioned officers, both of whom served in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave statements to the human rights organization out of "regret" for what they did themselves at the direction of military intelligence personnel or witnessed but did not report, Sifton said. They asked not to be identified, he said, out of fear they could be prosecuted for their actions. They did not contact Senate staff, aides said.
One of the sergeants has left the Army, while the other is deployed overseas with a different unit, Sifton said, adding that both had declined to talk to reporters.
A spokeswoman for the 82nd Airborne, Maj. Amy Hannah, said the division's inspector general was working closely with Army officials in Washington to investigate the matter, including the captain's assertion that he tried to alert his chain of command months ago.
John Ullyot, a spokesman for Warner, said that the Army captain spoke by telephone with a senior committee aide in the last 10 days, and that his allegations were deemed credible enough that the committee aide recommended he report them to his new unit's inspector general.
While they also witnessed some abuses at another forward operating base near the Iraqi border with Syria, they said most of the misconduct they witnessed had taken place at Mercury, where prisoners captured on the battlefield or in raids were held for up to 72 hours before being released or transferred to Abu Ghraib.
Interrogators pressured guards to beat up prisoners, and one sergeant recalled watching a particular interrogator who was a former Special Forces soldier beating the detainee himself. "He would always say to us, 'You didn't see anything, right?"' the sergeant said. "And we would always say, 'No, sergeant."'
One of the sergeants told Human Rights Watch that he had seen a soldier break open a chemical light stick and beat the detainees with it. "That made them glow in the dark, which was real funny, but it burned their eyes, and their skin was irritated real bad."
A second sergeant, identified as an infantry squad leader and interviewed twice in August by Human Rights Watch, said, "As far as abuse goes, I saw hard hitting." He also said he had witnessed how guards would force the detainees "to physically exert themselves to the limit."
Some soldiers beat prisoners to vent their frustrations, one sergeant said, recalling an instance when an off-duty cook showed up at the detention area and ordered a prisoner to grab a metal pole and bend over. "He told him to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a mini-Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat."
Even after the Abu Ghraib scandal became public, one of the sergeants said, the abuses continued. "We still did it, but we were careful," he told the human rights group.